Cucharas Dam: Two Rivers Water & Farming Company fails to meet deadline from the State Engineer

Cucharas Dam via The Pueblo Chieftain
Cucharas Dam via The Pueblo Chieftain

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

A legal battle has sprung up over the status of the Cucharas Dam, located on the Cucharas River in Huerfano County south of Pueblo.

The state wants the dam taken out, while the owner wants more time to fix it.
State Engineer Dick Wolfe issued an order to Two Rivers Water & Farming Co. to breach the dam in February, giving the company until the end of June to show 30 percent design work toward removal of the dam.

In a July 27 letter, Wolfe informed Two Rivers that he would file a civil action in Huerfano County District Court seeking $500 per day penalties since June 30 until an acceptable plan to breach the dam is filed.

Two Rivers responded on Aug. 7 with a complaint against Wolfe, Division Engineer Steve Witte and the Welton Land and Water Co. arguing that the Huerfano-Cucharas river system has not been properly administered.

Engineering reports submitted to Division 2 water court attempt to prove that the Welton Ditch on the Huerfano River east of Pueblo has expanded its use and is using water inefficiently. The state will ask for dismissal of those claims.

Two Rivers CEO John McKowen declined to be interviewed for this story.

Two Rivers, a company formed by Denver businessman McKowen, purchased the dam site, along with the rest of the Huerfano-Cucharas Ditch system southeast of Pueblo in 2010. Since then, the company has branched out into farming on the Bessemer Ditch and building greenhouses for marijuana growers through its subsidiary GrowCo.

The company also toyed with projects to supply El Paso County cities with water and to build a reservoir on the Excelsior Ditch east of Pueblo. Those have been abandoned. Two Rivers also got in a tussle with the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District over the terms of a conservation easement on one of its Bessemer Ditch properties.

But its first project was taking over the Cucharas Reservoir, which has been under state storage restrictions since 1987, when water began leaking. McKowen at the time said he planned to bring the Huerfano-Cucharas Ditch system back into production and, in fact, harvested several crops.

Two Rivers subsequently purchased other reservoirs and ditches in Huerfano County. McKowen received, then gave back, a $10 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to renovate Cucharas Dam and eventually build a new dam just downstream.

The Colorado Division of Water Resources agreed to a compliance plan in August 2013, but in February issued a breach order, meaning the dam would have to be removed.

“I think the complaint is trying to slow down the breach order,” Witte said.

“Over the years, Two Rivers has done some work on the dam, but never enough to remove the storage restrictions. . . .

The time for talking about plans is over and it’s time to act on those plans, because it’s unsafe.”

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